Islamist attacks on Jews have triggered repeated warnings about the return of antisemitism to Europe. Benjamin Netanyahu recently capitalized on the concern by suggesting European Jews flee to Israel. One American commentator went so far as to invoke Hitler’s last will and testament, suggesting the Nazi dictator’s ideology has come back far faster than Hitler himself predicted. But do these terrorist attacks really return Europe’s Jews to the dangers of the Nazi era, or to the antisemitism of Europe’s last few centuries? No.
The Nazis imposed state-sponsored antisemitism. Earlier European governments sponsored antisemitism too, though not as extreme. More often, they governed with contemptuous indifference to the Jews’ needs and rights. They offered little or no protection against harassment and discrimination, perpetrated by large segments of the population. Today’s antisemitism is different. The attacks don’t come from the state or from large numbers of Europeans. They come from a minority within a minority: the radical Islamist fringe of Europe’s Middle Eastern population. European states stand firmly alongside their Jewish citizens. And just as important: vast numbers of Europe’s people stand alongside their Jewish brethren too.
Some argue that the situation today resembles the rise of Nazism, rather than Nazi rule. Islamist terrorists, they say, resemble Hitler and his followers during the 1920’s: voices in the wilderness yet capable of generating a mass movement. But the Nazis were Germans preaching to other Germans, calling on prejudices common to Europeans in General. The Islamist grudge against the Jews, on the other hand, is unique to Muslim Middle Easterners (and rare even among them). It arises in large part from the conflict over Israel: the Palestinians, the Islamic holy sites, etc. The spread of these views among Europeans of Middle Eastern descent presents a real risk. But this Islamist grudge isn’t likely to capture non-Muslim Europeans — the majority — who come from a different heritage. And it’s not likely to seize European governments, particularly with protection for minorities entrenched in seventy years of civil rights laws.
Islamist terrorism threatens all Westerners, and unfortunately European Jews have been particular targets. But comparing today’s dangers to Nazism and its predecessors not only reveals blindness to history; it devalues the Jewish people’s historic struggles. And the fear of Nazi-like antisemitism threatens to swamp sober reflection, impairing everyone’s judgment on how to meet the Islamist threat.
© 2015 by David W. Tollen